Sir Mark Elder conducted the Hallé in the final concert of their 2012/13 Thursday Series, with a truly titanic account of Mahler’s First Symphony at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.

Helen Grime © Jonathan Wrather
Helen Grime
© Jonathan Wrather

The evening began with the première of Near Midnight, the first commission for Helen Grime in her role as Associate Composer of the Hallé. Before the concert she and horn player Tom Redmond provided an entertaining background to the work, describing its roots in a little-known D.H. Lawrence poem, Weeknight Service. Grime’s music depicts the lonely, tolling church bells described by Lawrence through imaginative brass and percussion scoring, well related by the orchestra. Grime also described the dichotomy between the worldly stillness and high mental activity of the late evening, and translates this very clearly into her music. The Hallé clearly conveyed the ideas behind the piece, and, perhaps most importantly for a première, it is a work I should very much like to hear again.

Paul Lewis was soloist for a fine account of possibly the most popular of Mozart's 27 piano concertos, no. 23. His playing was wonderfully light of touch, happy to blend in with the orchestra in soft accompaniment but also sparkling in the more vivacious passages of the third movement. The feeling behind much of the first movement, seeming to suggest a sad smile, was beautifully delivered. Both soloist and orchestra were sublimely gentle, leaning away from overt displays of virtuosity or flair.

The pared down orchestra supported very well and provided many delightful moments of their own. There was some finely articulated playing from the woodwind principals in the second movement, and the grace of the strings in the third, combined with Lewis’ flawless technique, made for a hugely entertaining close. It made for an interesting prelude to the Mahler, seeming to grow from gentle beginnings to an exciting finish.

The concert highlight, though, was always going to be Mahler 1. Under Elder’s direction the Hallé produced one of the very best accounts of the symphony I have heard, leaving a thoroughly delighted audience. The slow dawn of the opening, with strings giving an A spread across seven octaves, was suffocatingly soft and well-controlled, giving a substantial sense of relief to the eventual emergence of the first theme. This, taken from Mahler’s Wayfarer song cycle, and describing the young hero going out into the world, was taken steadily to give full relief to the deeply lyrical melodies unfolding in the strings. The climax was moderate in tempo too, bringing clarity to every note of the horn triplet whoops and final, quicker run of the Wayfarer theme.

A vigorous and muscular second movement Ländler made the funereal third all the more moving, where Roberts Carrillo-Garcia’s double bass solo was excellent, as was the subsequent development of the Frère Jacques lament. The first violins brought a beautiful feathery lightness to their offer of a glimmer of major-key optimism, but it was the sombre funeral march which had the last word.

The Finale opened stormily with ferocious string bite, followed by marked contrast in the slower, melancholic passages, painted with a very broad brush to refer back to the third movement. The lower strings here gave a deliciously rounded, warm sound. For the last of these passages, before the climax of the whole symphony, Elder pulled the tempo back heavily, driving up the tension in the ascent to the climax. When it came, it was thrilling in its grandeur after the struggles which had gone before. The horns were superb, standing for their final lines and later receiving the loudest cheer. It had been a weighty, mature reading, emphasising the struggles of the Wayfarer on the way to an exceptionally hard-won triumph, and it was a joy to witness.

****1